College served for civil rights abuse and employment discrimination

According to a service of process filed earlier this month in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the college may be guilty of civil rights abuse and employment discrimination. The case was brought forward on January 5th by a former Sergeant in the Public Safety Department at the college, Shelton O. Sneed, who alleges that his employment was terminated unlawfully this past September as a result of his race. Sneed was an employee at the college for approximately 18 months during which, according to his case, he witnessed significant misconduct occur with impunity amongst his white colleagues, while he was singled out and subjected to unfair treatment by his superiors. Though the case is directed against the college, Director of Public Safety Mike Hill, Associate Director of Investigations Elizabeth Pitts, and Associate Director of Operations Sam Smemo, are heavily implicated in Sneed’s claim.

“This is an incident of employment discrimination that violated my client’s civil rights,” explained Robert T. Vance, Sneed’s attorney. “His employment was terminated because he is African American.”

According to his case, Sneed first found his employment in jeopardy in early September when he was informed by Zenobia Hargust, Director of Equal Opportunity and Engagement at the college, that a complaint had been filed against him by a white Public Safety officer, allegedly in regards to Sneed’s refusal to approve the officer’s request for a day off. Days later, Sneed was placed on administrative leave on the grounds of his purported efforts to improperly investigate an incident of sexual harassment involving another officer. According to his case, on September 18th, Sneed met with Hill, who requested that Sneed resign. Sneed, however, refused. Days later, Sneed claims, he was informed that his employment would be terminated as a result of his alleged “insubordination,” and on September 22nd, he officially left his position at the college.

Hill and Pitts declined to comment.

Sneed’s case describes his record at the college as “exemplary,” claiming that he had never been the recipient of any disciplinary action until the complaint lodged against him this fall. Prior to his work on the night shift in the Department of Public Safety at the college, Sneed served for 30 years as a Pennsylvania State Trooper where he was a lieutenant and the station commander of the force’s Avondale outpost. A 2014 biography of Sneed written in The Garnet Connection, the college’s Human Resources publication, describes Sneed as having extensive experience in law enforcement technologies and health practice, having worked as a trainer at St. Joseph’s Medical Center.

“There was absolutely no basis for his termination,” Vance explained. “My client was discriminated against because of his race, and he was treated differently than his fellow white security officers. There are specific instances, laid out in the summons, which show this.”

The vast majority of the case presented by Sneed to the college consists of documentation of six instances in which white Public Safety officers violated department or institutional policies, but went unpunished. These reports of misconduct include an account of a white officer allegedly striking a black officer in the head; an instance in which a student who was deemed a “credible” victim of sexual assault was told to “get some rest, and…discuss the incident another day;” an allegation that an officer consistently charged his personal lunches at Renato’s to a college account; an incident in which a white officer placed Sneed in a physically dangerous situation, but received only minor sanctions; a report alleging that a supervisor in the Public Safety department brought a gun on campus in clear violation of college policy; and an account of officers leaving their shifts early and disregarding the mandate that there be a minimum of two officers on call at all times. While only one of these reports includes Sneed personally, he believes that they are sufficiently indicative of the racially-motivated amnesty provided to white officers in the department, thereby underscoring the discriminatory nature of Sneed’s dismissal.

“Defendant’s termination of Mr. Sneed was consistent with its practice of discriminating against Black members of the Public Safety Department,” the case reads. “Defendant acted and failed to act willfully, maliciously, intentionally and with reckless disregard for Mr. Sneed’s rights.”

The college, however, denies these claims. According to Sharmaine Lamar, Assistant Vice President for Institutional Risk Management and Public Affairs at the college, while little can be said about the case directly, given that it is still in litigation, the college is committed to creating a workspace in which all employees are supported equally.

“We can, and do want to emphatically say that at Swarthmore College, our overarching mission is to foster a campus environment in which all students, staff, and faculty are able to thrive and achieve their full potential,” explained Lamar. “Our commitment to diversity is an essential component of that mission, and we are dedicated to living that commitment every day. As to the particulars of this case, we strongly dispute the allegations in the complaint and intend to defend against the claims vigorously in court.”

Sneed’s case was filed under the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1991, which protect employees from discrimination in regards to making, enforcing, and terminating contracts. According to Vance, the college has yet to respond to the summons.

“Once they respond, then the judge will give us a timeline on the discovery process and everything,” Vance explained. “We are seeking trial with jury, but the case is really in its beginning stages.”

Sneed is requesting reinstatement onto the force as well as restitution for the losses he suffered during his period of unemployment. However, his attorney believes that reinstatement is an ambitious request.

“I’m not sure that’s definitely practical as there might be bad feelings in a department that small,” Vance explained. “Still, we are trying to get compensation for his back pay.”

Sneed’s case is riddled with citations of the “mental anguish,” “loss of enjoyment for life,” and “emotional distress” that he has experienced since the termination of his employment on the force. While the case is based largely on personal allegations, which cannot be substantiated without a formal discovery process, if these allegations are found to be true, they provide a damning portrait of misconduct carried out by Public Safety personnel at all levels of the department.

The college has 30 days to respond to the service of process.

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